Finding the phalarope

Yet another rare bird has popped up in the wider Gauteng region and we, of course, could not resist going to find it. This time it was a red phalarope (Phalaropus fulicaria) at Mkhombo Dam Nature Reserve in Mpumalanga. The red phalarope is a small shorebird that breeds in the Arctic. During the Northern Hemisphere winter, they migrate and often congregate in large flocks offshore. However, rarely, a phalarope gets blown inland and shows up on some fresh waterbody. Phalaropes are unique among shorebirds as they feed on the water, often using a distinct spinning or twirling motion to stir up small invertebrates from the mud. When their prey rises to the top of the water, the birds grab it. Here is a video of the red phalaropes cousin, the red-necked phalarope (P. lobatus) feeding.

In addition to the lure of the red phalarope, there have been several other rarities at Mkhombo Dam including up to 15 Caspian plovers (Charadrius asiaticus), a lesser black-backed gull (sort of)(Larus fuscus), and two black-tailed godwits (Limosa limosa). On top of the rarities, there is always plenty to look for at Mkhombo with many waterbirds as well as bushveld species on offer.

We woke up at 4:15am and made the long trek (two hours) to Mkhombo from Johannesburg. Steppe buzzards (Buteo vulpinus), magpie shrikes (Corvinella melanoleuca), and woodland kingfishers (Halcyon senegalensis) were all perched along the lines on the way up. As we arrived at the reserve, everything was calling. Kalahari and white-browed scrub-robins (Cercotrichas paena & C. leucophrys) were singing their melodious songs, scaly-feathered finches (Sporopipes squamifrons) were buzzing in the tops of Acacia trees, and blue waxbills (name) were giving their light tinkling tweets. We quickly made our way down to the shore where the phalarope had been reported and sure enough, it was right there, completely relaxed despite its many admirers. It was feeding in its characteristic way, spinning in little circles.

After appreciating (and photographing) the phalarope, we began picking through the other waterbirds. There were flocks of greater and lesser flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber & P. minor), groups of red-billed teals (Anas erythrorhyncha), yellow-billed ducks (A. undulata), and cape shovelers (A. smithii), and droves of migrant shorebirds. Ruffs (Philomachus pugnax), curlew sandpipers (Calidris ferruginea), little stints (C. minuta), and common ringed-plovers (Charadrius hiaticula) were in abundance. We also spotted the gull but dipped on the Caspian plovers. We continued around the dam and spotted a greater kestrel (Falco rupicoloides) flying over the dry flood plain. On our way out, we found the most incredible pair of Temminck’s coursers (Cursorius temminckii) in the road. At least, they seem to be enjoying our dry conditions.

After our successful twitch, we had decided to head towards Kgomo-Kgomo floodplain via Rust de Winter. The dirt road took us through prime thornveld habitat. We started off with a pair of violet-eared waxbills (Uraeginthus granatinus) foraging in a brushy pile. They were quickly followed by a barred wren-warbler (Calamonastes fasciolatus) (making his typical phone ringing call), marico flycatcher (Bradornis mariquensis), long-billed crombec (Sylvietta rufescens), black-faced waxbill (Estrilda erythronotos), and crimson-breasted shrike (Laniarius atrococcineus). Tiny African quailfinch (Ortygospiza fuscocrissa) and red-billed firefinch (Lagonosticta senegala) were drinking out of puddles in the road. At Rust de Winter, we found hamerkop (Scopus umbretta) and African black duck (Anas sparsa) in the river and a large flock of Abdim’s stork (Ciconia abdimii) in a cattle field. Abdim’s storks often congregate in areas where termites are erupting.

By the time we arrived at Zaaguildrift, it was already heat of the day but we still found a few nice things. We spent a solid 15 minutes trying to catch a glimpse of a warbler in thick bush. You could only see a quarter of the bird each time, a bit of the tail, a wing, or the legs. Finally, he offered us a full view for a millisecond, confirming that he was an icterine warbler (Hippolais icterina). When we reached the floodplain, there was some water although not as much as previous years. Fulvous and white-faced whistling ducks (Dendrocygna bicolor & D. viduata) were both present along with all three white egrets.

It was truly a magnificent day in the field. It is so nice to hear all the birds calling and to see a little bit of water along the dirt roads. We recorded a total of 139 species of birds, of which 64 were new for the year bringing us up to 204 species (205 for Melis). Our eyes are definitely warmed up for Namibia now!


One thought on “Finding the phalarope

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s